Movie review: The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)

The movie drew me into the world and experiences of this brilliant mathematician, but it never drew me in completely to his world of mathematics. I felt much like his wife—on the outside looking in and not understanding what was going on internally for him with mathematics.

The Man Who Knew Infinity starts in 1914 in Madras, where Ramanujan was desperately trying to find work by showing anyone and everyone his notebooks thick with mathematical formulas. Snubbed by the British, he finally found a fellow Indian who saw promise in his formulas and the great intellect behind them. Ramanujan was finally able to set up a house and send for his new wife and his mother.

His boss hired him, with the caveat that he teach him what was in his notebooks. In time, their British superior recognized Ramanujan’s skills too and put Ramanujan in contact with famous mathematicians in the UK. Ramanujan wrote them tidbits of his theories, enough to tantalize them.

G. H. Hardy wrote back and invited Ramanujan to Trinity College to help publish his work. Ramanujan left against his mother’s wishes. For reasons I do not understand, it was forbidden for Hindus to cross the oceans. He promised to send for his wife who urged him not to forget her.

His wife was left to live with her mother-in-law, which appeared to be the traditionally bad in-law relationship. The mother seemed to despise her. Jankti, Srinivasa’s wife, wrote him faithfully, paying a scribe to write down her thoughts—as a woman in early 20th century India, she was uneducated and illiterate. She gave her letters to her mother-in-law to mail, which the mother-in-law never did. She feared that if Srinivasa sent for his wife, he would never return to India.

Meanwhile, Ramanujan was going through his own personal hell at Trinity College. His formulas, while brilliant, lacked proofs. One could not say if they were correct or not. Hardy was a cruel taskmaster, forcing Ramanujan into ways of thinking and working that went against his natural talents. Slowly his spirit was broken.

He was ordered to attend lectures to give him exposure to the rigors of mathematics in the west. Ramanujan, already unwelcome by many due to his ethnicity, was further ostracized by the professors who felt threatened by his intellect. And he was physically and verbally harassed by classmates.

His gift with mathematics was not based on education—he had none. He described it as the gods giving him the formulas. “An equation had no meaning unless it expresses a thought of god.” He did not know how he knew them. He only knew that he had to get them out and published before he died.

He was diagnosed with tuberculosis while in the UK. He finished some work with Hardy and then went back to India for what was supposed to be a year. He never made it back to the UK but died that year.

Ramanujan’s formulas did enter the halls of greatness. In 1976, a lost notebook of his from the last year of his life was found and now honors a place alongside the writings of other greats. The formulas in this notebook are currently being used to understand the behavior of black holes.

The movie is an interesting look into Ramanujan’s time at Trinity College. (Can I ever see a scene of an elite school in the UK and not think Harry Potter?) But I was left with only the vaguest of understanding that he did great things in mathematics.

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